In memory of Bernie Worrell
In memory of Bernie Worrell (April 19, 1944 – June 24, 2016)
homepage photo of Bernie Worrell by Robert Sutherland-Cohen
A benefit/celebration for Bernie and his family will be held July 19 at the Wild Buffalo.
On June 24, the legendary Bernie Worrell succumbed to lung cancer and passed away. The outpouring of tributes was overwhelming from musicians such as Mike Watt and Bill Laswell (who allowed us to include them) to Les Claypool and many others. Rolling Stone paid tribute on their home page with the 10 Bernie songs you had to hear, The NY Times wrote about him, countless publications discussed his impact on music, and even more shared their personal memories.
While Bernie and his family – wife Judie and son Bassl – only lived in Whatcom County for nine months, it didn’t take long before Bernie was given the love by local musicians he so rightly deserved. We hope he absorbed and enjoyed that sense of community.
Bernie may not have been a household name to many, but serious music fans and music nerds knew and respected his work. To some, myself included, he was someone whose brilliant playing and genius creativity changed music in ways we don’t even realize. He created a vocabulary of sounds, only playing keys that didn’t utilize presets but that he could manipulate, that countless have tried to recreate and failed. He was also a musician’s musician – money wasn’t at the forefront of his mind, instead, Bernie (especially in the 90s and early 2000s) played with acts such as Captain Les’s Bucket of Bernie Brains (Les Claypool, Buckethead, Bernie, and drummer Brain), and Praxis (same line up with Bill Laswell on bass). Just before his death he was slated to go out with Les Claypool’s Delirium project with Sean Lennon. All musicians who take creativity to a new level.
I think it was the spring of last year when I first got word the Worrells were looking to move to Whatcom County from New Jersey. Then one day last September I was in line at the Everson Market (near where I live) and saw a guy my age wearing a Bernie Worrell shirt. I made some mention to the guy that was a cool shirt and how does he know about Bernie Worrell, to which he replied, “That’s my dad.” I lost it. It was amazing how quickly I went from a respectable guy in his mid-40s to a complete fan boy, repeating over and over (while still in line), “No way, he’s your dad? No way… no way.” He let me know they’d moved to the Everson area to which Bassl was peppered with even more “no ways” and “are you serious?” Finally, as I’m trying to pay for my few groceries, a car pulls into the parking lot and he says, “That’s my dad, do you want to meet him?” I thought I was going to puke! I was about to meet BERNIE WORRELL! Bassl and I walked out of the store together and he quickly introduced me to Bernie, who was battling terrible arthritis in his hands, so he could only fist bump. All this went down within five minutes, but it’s five minutes that will live in my heart forever.
My heart sank when Iearned he was sick, but rose when I saw the community love him and when I heard updates from the Khu.éex’ sessions where Bernie’s playing seemed to get more and more cosmic. I missed his last performance in town at a free funk night at the Wild Buffalo; I was told Bernie was in another world with his playing. He wouldn’t play live again.
We learned Bernie couldn’t head out with Claypool and Lennon. He went into hospice, but then came out, passing a few days later at home. My hope is that the move here helped give him a sense of community, gave him a home, and gave him love from people who understood or admired his genius, respecting him for it. My hope is that our community made life a little brighter for him, helping him through his final days. My hope is that he felt loved, because he was.
I could write about all the persons Bernie played with, the records he made, about the concerts he played. I could write about his superhuman musical technique, his genius innovations in sound, how he changed the musical landscape of the world to the point that music has not been the same since 1969. You can do your own research on all that (and you should).
The most important things I learned from Bernie were things that transcended music: Humanity, humility, and selflessness, putting others first and how to treat people.
His drive wasn’t to be a star or to be “up on a pedastal” (as he liked to say). He didn’t want to be a focal-point frontman. He wanted to interact and collaborate with people, and the group was always more important than the individual. He wanted to see other people shine and express themselves. He wanted to play music to connect with others, to bring happiness to others, to bring positivity into this world.
When he played it was collaboration between himself and the spirit world, and his channels were open for the spirits to come to him. He knew that as a musician, your role is to balance your skill, gift, and discipline, with being a conduit for the spirits to join us. I think this is why Bernie remained artistically vital all the way to the end. He treated the spirit of music so respectfully and non-exploitively that writer’s block was never an issue. I’ve seen the man improvise throughout 8 hour days in the studio and not once run out of ideas.
He was about generosity, giving his time to teach and share his knowledge with others. I never once saw him “phone it in” on any performance, session, or gig. He treated every time he played as if it was the most important thing he’d ever played on.
Bernie was very proud of his Native heritage and supporting the Native community was very important to him. He gave his time to fundraise for Northwest Indian College students and to bring attention to Native culture as a living culture and Native music as being as important as classical music or any other music. Being priviledged to live in a world where Bernie was playing Tlingit songs on a clavinet was a beautiful thing.
He didn’t dwell on the past or fall back on his past accomplishments. He lived for today, making today matter, and creating with others in the present. I never saw him not greet others with a smile. I never saw him turn a fan away who approached him, even when his body was tired and in pain.
At this point if Bernie were reading this, I’m sure he’d tell me to stop making him sound like a saint. Bernie wasn’t a saint, he was human and made mistakes like the rest of us. And that should inspire us to see that even in a life where we’ve made our share of mistakes we can still be a source of inspiration and change the world for the better.
Please honor and remember Bernie by following his example of treating others well, looking for how you can bring out the best in others, listening, sharing your time and knowledge with young people, looking for the positive in people, being self-disciplined and always giving others your best, working hard to support your family, keeping an open mind, and not letting your past define you (make today and tomorrow count). Find a way to make others smile. We are here in this world to help others. This is how we can honor Bernie’s legacy.
We will miss you. Thank you for making the world a better place.
–Captain Raab (bandmate in Khu.éex’)
He was a kind, gentle and humble soul. The people who never got to meet him missed out big time. I consider myself very fortunate to have gotten to hang out with him a little bit in his last days. I wish I had known him earlier than I did. I liked him a lot in the short time I got to spend with him. He was just so happy, chill and likable. I couldn’t help but have an instant affection for him. The way his face lit up when someone else on stage was killin’ it was something to see. Pure joy in the process and the expression of music. It was obvious how much he loved playing and collaborating with other musicians. He was really all about that. And he didn’t withhold his wisdom. He seemed to share what ever he had within him and gave that wisdom freely. He was a good man who deserved way more fame and more fortune than he got, but, it didn’t seem to me that that’s what he was about anyway. He was all about the music. He was a pretty quiet man. I asked him what he liked to do in his down time, aside from music and he told me “fishing”. I would have loved to have taken him fishing. By the time I came into the picture though, it was clear that he was usually in quite a bit of pain. Bernie has left a giant hole in music that will never be refilled by anyone. And as a lovely human being he will be greatly missed.
–Sue Mattson (working on Bernie Worrell documentary)
Big BIG love to brother Bernie Worrell. Once in k-town I was invited to play “super stupid” and “maggot brain” w/him and damn if he didn’t ask me to do a bass solo in “maggot brain” – I had never done that over those chords before, always did my “war pigs intro” version dirge to go under nels or something but here was beautiful brother Bernie pointing at me and saying “go!” so I went and gave the gee oh, pushed it over those righteous lines he had wailing from his organ… I can just see him looking over at me and nodding w/a beautiful smile, like “alright” and all that afraidness inside me faded. after I ‘pert-near keeled over, crimony…
–Mike Watt (from his Facebook page, printed with permission)
Well I didn’t expect to be crying in the mud today at Glastonbury. I’m so happy I got to know this wonderful man.
The truth is, I only knew Bernie during the last few months of his life. But I’d like to think we became friends. Bernie Worrell already had plenty of friends. He had Meryl Streep, David Brynne, and every member of Parliament Funkadelic to call his pal. When I asked him about Sly Stone, his eyes lit up and he spoke to me about all the good times they shared. Bernie Worrell’s list of friends is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Maybe I was Bernie’s pal. Maybe I was just a fan who got to live out my funk dreams interviewing him and promoting some of his last shows (and they were great shows).
It was unbelievable though, wasn’t it Bellingham? The hours we did get to spend with him? I ended up playing three shows with Bernie, two of which I found myself beside him singing some of the biggest hits he ever recorded with Parliament-Funkadelic and Talking Heads. Whether friend or just a fan, I have no doubt about one thing:
Dr. Bernie Worrell (as he was named shortly before he died) was my second greatest music professor, next to Horace Alexander Young (a gentleman I quote on a weekly basis and think about almost daily). I spent years studying with Horace. I only spent a couple of hours on stage with Bernie. Yet the lessons I learned at Wild Buffalo as he called upon me to communicate with the band on his behalf, because his lungs were full of cancer and every word was a struggle, was as valuable as a master’s degree from Harvard.
His advice was awesome, but it wasn’t always necessarily what I wanted to hear. At his benefit, he called me over and told me to chill out during ‘Mothership Connection’. He said, “look out there Davin, we got em’, they ain’t going no where.”
At the second show I played with him at Wild Buffalo, he blew all of our minds by asking to play with us at Free Funk Friday while refusing to accept his ‘share’ of the gig money. It was magical and it felt like this unspoken personal thank you for the benefit shows we helped organize. It was also a chance for him drink some wine and show us all the most unbelievable time. Here’s a highlight:
Bernie kept telling me to end songs, recognizing immediately that I suck at doing so and had little confidence conducting a band. He sensed I just needed a crash course and this being his first gig after being given his honorary doctorate, class was in session. After he had me end the song ‘Take Me To The River’ he calls me over and says, “Davin you sang that song pretty good, but we gotta’ work on that ending…what the hell was that?” he said breaking into a chuckle as he physically clowned how I ended the song. I thought I kind of nailed it, but with a gesture, he showed me that I ended the song with the grace of Charles Barkley swinging a golf club. I only knew him for a few months, but I am sure going to miss him.
I’m going to send this thing home by saying this: Bernie Worrell was so much bigger than his skinny little frame. He stood so much taller than the Wild Buffalo or the Cancer that ended his magnificent run here on earth. Bernie Worrell changed the way we hear music. Now I just hope he gets the recognition he has always deserved. I hope they put him up there with Basie, Ellington, and Hendrix where he belongs. Because my friend was a giant.
The truth is that Bernie made my life better. It’s a strange day to cry in this mud. As I stand here, the whole of Britain in shock, wiping tears away tears, I hope his passing isn’t lost in the Brexit. For like Mother Teresa passing the same day as Princess Diana, the really great ones like Mozart go out penniless, but burn on FOREVER.
–Davin Stedman (Staxx Brothers, organizer of Bernie Worrell benefit)
There is a lot to be said about someone who shaped the landscape of music and had major influences on numerous musicians and listeners alike. Dr. Bernard Worrell was a pioneer of early synthesizer work using many keyboards over the years such as the Hammond B-3, Hohner Clavinet, Arp String ensemble, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Yamaha CS-80 but he absolutely rewrote the rules of music and birthed an entire new genre with the Moog “Minimoog” Model D. It’s hard to imagine Parliament Funkadelic without Bernie Worrell. His Soaring string lines, crunchy Hammond licks, Funky clavinet lines and the futuristic minimoog arrangements made up and coming hip hop artist salivate at the mouth and want to mirror or “sample” these sounds in their own work and most of the famous hip hop/G funk era lines are Parliament Funkadelic synth samples created and tracked by non other than Dr. Worrell.
When I caught word that the Worrell family was relocating to our community I knew that by any means I had to rub shoulders with him at any cost. Me being a product of the 80’s, I grew up listening to P Funk, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and was heavily influenced by particularly Bernie’s playing and his innovation on the minimoog synthesizer. My good friend Davin Steadman did an interview with him at Avalon music and put the good word in that I collect and maintain vintage keyboards and own and operate NorthWest Sound Studio would love to have him over and hang, play, jam, talk all things Bob Moog being he knew him personally, really whatever just try to start an organic relationship with a living legend. To my absolute surprise his Wife Judie contacted me a couple of weeks later and said that Bernie would be interested in coming over and checking out the setup of the studio and some of the synthesizers that I own. I felt like a kid at Christmas. The date was set and I had no idea what to expect. The first time I met him, January 28th 2016 1pm…I had a knock at the door at exactly 1pm! It was their long time friend and a person that I would later play music with and all out great person Rob Ludgate, then a purple Honda pulled up and out comes Bernie Worrell and his wife Judie with purple get up from head to toe, purple hat, purple gloves, purple pants and being that I live in a purple house I thought we were off to a great start. He came in and he played all of keys and noted how long it’s been since he played a couple of synths I own. Not long after that he said it…”You guys want to jam for awhile?” I could have died right there. The obvious answer was yes and we played for about 45 minutes before a couple of friends showed up randomly and we were off and jamming for a good solid 2+ hours. In that moment, we were all kids again, playing music for the reason we play music, artistic freedom and self-expression.
Spawning from our first meeting together we were able to build a great friendship and we were able to accomplish some amazing things together. Apart from recording, jamming, playing a few gigs with him, going out to their place and helping them out with whatever they need, one moment really encompasses who Bernie Worrell is as a person. A mutual friend of the Worrell’s and myself, Bryant Davis asked us if we would like to go to his wife’s assisted living center and play for however long some afternoon and entertain some of the residence. Bernie immediately jumped on it and said “YES” I would like to make it happen. Within a week or so we went to Fairhaven with some local musicians and played a wide array of songs, some gospel songs, funky, blues. I feel that I learned a lot from Bernie about selflessness and putting others first. His drive wasn’t to be a star, he didn’t want to be a focal point front man. He wanted to interact and collaborate with people, and the group was always more important than the individual. He wanted to see other people shine. He wanted to play music to connect with others, to bring happiness to others. He was about generosity, giving his time to teach and share his knowledge with others. He didn’t dwell on the past, he lived for today and making today matter and creating with others. I never saw him not greet others with a smile. I never saw him turn a fan away who approached him, even when his body was tired and in pain.
We can honor and remember Bernie by treating others well, looking for how you can bring out the best in others, share your time and knowledge with young people, look for the positive in people, be self disciplined and always give others your best, work hard to support your family, and don’t let your past define you (make today and tomorrow count). And find a way to make others smile. This is how we can honor Bernie’s legacy.
We will miss you. Thank you for making the world a better place.
-Justin Smith (Snug Harbor)
Published in the July 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine